For one child fighting brain cancer, the simple act of a dog laying its head in her lap helped change the course of her life. After adopting her dog at the age of nine, Allison Winn decided to create a program to help connect other sick children with canine companions.
The Stink Bug program is a win all around — for the families and children, the dogs and the trainers, said Kelly Hansen of Denver whose daughter Mora, 10, has expressive speech disorders, known as childhood apraxia.
The Hansen family’s companion dog, Rafael C., affectionally called Rafa, has helped Mora become more social, both with peers and adults, including people familiar to her and strangers, Hansen said.
“The trained dogs help with confidence for the children’s emotional wellbeing and physical comfort,” Hansen said. “And that extends to the rest of the family.”
The Stink Bug Project is a program of Rocky Mountain Children’s Health Foundation. It matches obedient companion dogs to families with a child diagnosed with a serious medical condition.
“We have seen how isolated and lonely the children can get when they’re sick,” said Lee Shaughnessy, the director of programs for Rocky Mountain Children’s Health Foundation. “A dog provides unconditional comfort and love.”
The Stink Bug Project started nine years ago by founder Winn, 18, who has survived brain cancer. When she was 9, she got her dog Coco, a poodle that’s now 10, from the Prison-Trained K-9 Companion Program.
There were two other families at the prison picking out dogs that day, Winn said. The other children were playing with the dogs, but because she was sick, Winn sat off to the side, just watching.
“Coco was the only one to notice that I wasn’t playing with the other kids and dogs,” Winn said. “She came over and sat on my lap, and that’s how we knew we wanted her.”
Winn used the term stink bug for her cancer and chemo, she said, and Coco became her best friend — she was always there to comfort Winn after chemo treatments and radiation.
Because of this, “I wanted to help other kids get dogs,” Winn said.
So, she and her sister Emily, 16, sold lemonade and homemade dog biscuits to raise enough money to help another child with an illness get a dog. Today, 100 dogs have gone to families as a Stink Bug dog.
“No matter how young you are, never be afraid to change the world,” said Winn, a recent high school graduate who will be studying theater arts this fall at the University of Northern Colorado because of its dog-friendly campus.
The Prison-Trained K-9 Companion Program is at seven facilities across Colorado and has saved about 43,000 dogs since 2009 when the Stink Bug program began, said Darlene McInnes, the instructor for the program. The dogs come from shelters, rescues, puppy mills and private surrender.
But the program is also a benefit for the inmates, McInnes said. The dogs give them something to love and care for, she said.
“There are women in those prisons who, without having a dog to be with and train, wouldn’t be alive today,” McInnes said.
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